Portland, Oregon, indie-pop band Little Beirut seem to have a thing or three to say concerning the pursuit of the fairer sex on the group’s third effort, the self-effacing Fear of Heaven. Frontman Hamilton Sims sings about a blue plate specialist who wants to dance to Roxy Music on “Cosmic Waitress,” the life of a former Olympian during “Nadia,” and the lingering scent of young romance permeates “Cigarette Girls.” This is not new territory – previous outing High Dive (2008) featured a song partially devoted to ex-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, for example – but Little Beirut have fine-tuned their focus.
Things haven’t changed much since 2004 when the group copped their name from a description for Portland which was used by then President George H.W. Bush’s staff after violent protests that occurred during his visits to Oregon in the early 1990s.
When Little Beirut began they sought to create unprepossessing pop music that could or would sneak up on listeners. Nothing weird or avant-garde, just cool little breaks and memorable hooks – the same aspects Big Star or The Posies once aspired to. Fear of Heaven retains the eminent harmonies and appealing melodies Little Beirut’s always supplied, pop supported by a rock foundation striking a careful balance between pop traditionalism and indie free spirit. With Fear of Heaven, Little Beirut reached their goals. This is a big, fat pop record with elements and influences that, at different points, evoke The Decemberists, My Morning Jacket, or even Coldplay.
One of several highlights is the riffing “Nadia,” a jangly pop tune inspired by the biography of Nadia Comaneci, the14-year-old girl who scored a perfect 10 seven times in a row during the 1976 Montreal Olympics. As gymnastic fans might know, she led an unpleasant existence behind the Iron Curtain, defected to the West in the late 1980s, and eventually settled in Oklahoma. Sims’ oblique lyrics offer indirect details about an adolescent athlete who cracked under pressure, attempted suicide, and had to deal with a government who watched her every move.
Another famous personage may or may not have been the motivation behind a pair of songs. During the somber ballad “Tallulah, How Long,” Sims has a heart-to-heart with a mysterious woman. “Welcome back to life / From dancing with the dead / Whet your appetite with the demons in your head.” The lines could allude to controversial actress Tallulah Bankhead, notorious for her sexual exploits, hard partying, and extravagance. Her inner-afflictions led to many prominent displays. One of Bankhead’s noteworthy film roles took place in Hitchcock’s Lifeboat (1944), and it’s probably no coincidence that Little Beirut’s imagery-tinted and metaphor-inclined piece, “Lifeboat,” uses the same name. Here, Sims’ text loses all sense of immediacy and instead relies on enigmatic phrases. “There’s a lifeboat on a tightrope / In my air-conditioned mind / There’s a lifeboat stuck in my throat / And I’m running out of time.”
However, on sprightly, mid-tempo indie rocker “No One Special,” Sims is more straightforward. There’s a bit of Ben Gibbard’s melodramatic flair mixed with a pop-happy rhythmic lightness, as Sims croons, “I’m a doormat, if you please / Your personal parentheses / I built the altar of devotion / Would you take my love to task? /And our splendor in the grass?” While the nod to William Inge may be accidental, Sims’ representation of a failed relationship is sincere. Sims is no Morrissey, but gets as close to espousing romantic angst as anyone else.
Throughout this 46-minute, 12-track project, Little Beirut and producer Chris Robley slip in nuanced pop ingredients that give the material instrumental depth, though it might be overlooked on the first listen. The brooding “Armageddon Rag” begins with a spooky organ accenting the end-of-the-earth demeanor. Another violence-sliced number, “True Swords,” opens with echoed harmonica and concludes with atmospheric acoustic piano, together providing a gauzy layer which emphasizes Sims’ broken down wordplay.
Fear of Heaven might not the biggest selling release this year nor will it win the college rock sweepstakes, but this is a Pacific Northwest band that understands pop know-how can reap rewards beyond the usual trappings of success.Visit: Little Beirut
Purchase: Insound | eMusic